The crisis for herring is getting worse

The CEO has the floor
Almost a year ago, we at BalticWaters carried out a major campaign, Stop Industrial Fishing, to draw attention to how the Baltic Sea is being emptied of herring, how over 90 per cent of the catch is used for animal feed, and how coastal fishing has been wiped out. The campaign was the starting point for a broad, and still active, debate, which highlighted a management system that does not work and how politicians’ inability to make decisions has undermined the Baltic Sea’s unique fish populations.

Having worked with fisheries policy for more than 15 years, we know that change takes time, political processes are often complex and time-consuming, but time is running out. If politicians do not act now, industrial fishing will soon have fished down the food base for the Baltic Sea ecosystem. The knowledge of what needs to be done exists. Both the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Stockholm University have presented facts that show the way forward.

At BalticWaters, we will continue to fight to save the unique wild food fish of the Baltic Sea, because we believe it can be done. But we need your help. If you have friends and acquaintances who care about the Baltic Sea – spread the word. Share our briefs and ask your friends to follow our work. The more of us who make our voice heard, who debate and write posts, the more reason there is for politicians to listen and act.

In this brief, we have compiled new data on last year’s fisheries and fleet, as well as the five key fisheries policy issues for 2023. If you want to know even more, you can read our in-depth document “The way forward“.

 – Konrad Stralka, BalticWaters

One in four Swedish boats stopped fishing in 2022

Last year was a lost year for protecting fish species in the Baltic Sea. The issue of an extended trawl border was watered down to a project that allows continued trawling along the coast, and quotas were set high despite countless alarmist reports about the herring crisis. Powerful measures are now needed.

BalticWaters has compiled new data from the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management (HaV), which shows that every fourth small-scale fishing boat has stopped fishing in the Baltic Sea within a year. This development is a result of excessive catches in large-scale industrial fishing. While the largest boats are fishing for feed, where all sizes of herring can be sold, coastal fisheries need large herring that can be processed into fillets, pickles or sour herring.

The decrease in the number of small boats does not lead to lower catches. The 20 largest trawlers catch 95 per cent of Sweden’s fish catches in the Baltic Sea, while the hundreds of smaller boats together catch the remaining five per cent. Despite the facts showing that quotas need to be drastically reduced to bring back larger individuals, politicians have chosen to continue to prioritise high quotas at the expense of larger individuals and thus also coastal fishing and the environment of the Baltic Sea.

About the fishing in 2022
As in 2021, the twenty largest boats fished 95 percent of Sweden’s total catch in 2022. In total, 87,500 tonnes of fish were caught in the Baltic Sea by the Swedish boats, a slight decrease from 91,100 tonnes in 2021.

 In terms of weight, mainly sprat (60%) and herring (37%) were caught, followed by sprat (1.4%), vendace (1%) and salmon (0.1%), where the majority of the catch is not eaten by humans. Over 90% of all fish caught in the Baltic Sea in Sweden is used as feed for fish farms, dog and cat food, and mink, pig and chicken farming.
Number of boats20212022
>35 meters1312
18-35 meters69
12-18 meters2118
<12 meters417309
Source: Data from SwAM

Five fisheries policy measures to watch in 2023

Below we summarise five essential measures and studies needed to reduce the negative impact of fishing on the Baltic Sea environment.

Action: Sweden requests enhanced scientific advice

Today, the scientific advice on which quota decisions are based does not take into account the age and size structure of fish stocks, even though it should be included in the advice under the 2008 Marine Strategy Framework Directive. The consequences of not aiming to conserve larger individuals are now clearly visible and require urgent political action. The government must continue to monitor that this data is included in the quota advice and that catch levels are adjusted to preserve older and larger individuals in all EU managed stocks.

Action: Reduced fishing pressure

A report from SLU Aqua has shown that catches must be reduced by at least 60-80 per cent in the Gulf of Bothnia over decades to maintain a good age and size structure in the herring stock. Until this analysis is done and made permanent in the advice for all EU-managed Baltic Sea stocks, the quotas should be set with great caution. The Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre proposes at least halved quotas, which the government, with the support of the EU Council, can promote in the quota negotiations and the regional body BALTFISH.

Action: A relocated trawl boarder along the entire east coast

The Parliament has called on the government to move the trawl border “urgently”, which could protect overwintering herring and contribute to the reproduction and growth of herring. Instead of moving the trawl border, the previous government introduced a watered-down, unclear and flawed project. Despite the herring crisis, the question marks remain and the project has still not left the drawing board.

The government can change the content of the previous mandate and ensure that the trawl border is moved out to 12 nautical miles along the entire east coast, instead of introducing a choppy proposal that protects neither the fish nor small-scale fishing. You can read more about how the trawl border can be moved here.

Action: Improve fisheries controls

If vessels misreport their catches, we don’t know what is being fished in the Baltic Sea, which leads to a lack of knowledge about stocks, stock trends and the effects of fishing on ecosystems. Unfortunately, there are currently major problems with illegal discards and misreporting of species, which the administration must act against.

Among other things, regulatory changes and dissuasive penalties are
needed. According to SwAM, misreporting of species results in a fine of SEK 2000, while the value of a landing can amount to several million SEK. The shortcomings and necessary measures in fisheries control are described in Baltic Sea Brief 42 and will be developed in a forthcoming review of BalticWaters.

Action: Abandon the current EU governance model

In theory, the aim of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy is to maximize catches without jeopardizing the future growth of fish stocks. In practice, the model means keeping stocks at a low level with a steady decline. The models used to calculate catch levels only take into account the estimated total weight of the stock, without seeking to preserve older individuals or taking into account how fishing for one species may affect other species.

This approach is risky and often leads to a shift in the size structure of a fish stock towards younger individuals and smaller sizes, as highlighted by SLU Aqua last year. The analyses conducted by SLU Aqua show that the proportion of large herring will continue to decline if fishing continues with the current inadequate model. In addition, the high catch levels place great demands on stock estimates and scientific data, which unfortunately are not always correct. The government should therefore commission HaV to propose a less risky system that takes more account of environmental aspects and biodiversity.